The Archivist’s Nook: Friends I’ll Never Meet

This semester I had the pleasure of processing the Cecilia Parker Woodson Collection, a set of papers donated to the Archives by Tierney O’Neil via Robert Andrews last year. We call this a collection, by the way, because these are not a full set of papers related to Cecilia Woodson, rather, they are a set of materials she, deceased 79 years now, curated herself.

Did I write Cecilia Parker Woodson? I meant to write Cecil. Cecil was what her husband, Walter, and all of her friends called her, because that is what she wanted to be called. And now, after reading the hundreds of letters written to her between 1891 and 1920, I feel like I know her too, though she died decades before I was born. The first set of letters Cecil saved were the love letters sent to her by her traveling salesman husband Walter, and they offer a wonderful window into late nineteenth century courtship practices and social life in their native Virginia and Washington, D.C.

A letter from Lottie to “Dear Little Mama,” announcing her arrival in Peru, 1916.

 

One thing I would not call Cecil is “Dear Little Mama,” though most of the letters addressed to her in this collection open with just that salutation. The most voluminous correspondence in these collected papers are from Cecil’s daughter, Charlotte “Lottie” Virginia Woodson. Lottie left the family nest over on Monroe Street here in Brookland for Lima, Peru at the age of twenty-one. Cecil’s best friend Mary and her husband William Montavon, better known to Lottie as Aunt Mayme and Uncle Will, asked Cecil and Walter if they could take Lottie to Lima when Uncle Will was assigned a two-year diplomatic post there in 1916. Lottie was terribly eager to take the trip, and sailed off from New York City to Lima in February of that year. Her letters home chronicle the life of a young woman living in the foreign diplomatic set just before and during the First World War. There were teas, dinners, dances and decisions about the most appropriate footwear for the occasion, and Lottie writes “Dear Little Mama” about all of it. She even coyly describes her own courtship with another young diplomat, Victor Louis Tyree, who happened to also hail from Washington, D.C. The two were married in 1918 in Lima and made plans to move to La Paz, Bolivia afterward, when Victor was offered a better paying job with Denniston and Company after their marriage.

 

Lottie met Victor soon after she arrived in Lima in 1916, and they were married in October 1917. Here they pose, center, on their Wedding Day. Aunt Mayme stands next to Lottie, and Uncle Will stands mostly hidden behind Aunt Mayme.

Dear reader, this story does not end well. I’ll admit that I teared up when I read the telegram dated July 31, 1918: “BABY GIRL TWENTY THIRD CHARLOTTE DIED TWENTY EIGHT PULMONARY HEMORRHAGE CAUSED BY MEASLES.” Charlotte was pregnant soon after her marriage and she died in La Paz, just after giving birth to Merle Virginia Tyree. Not a week later, baby Merle died as well. Victor writes a long letter to Cecil describing the birth and death in heartbreaking detail. The letter had been read so many times it is falling apart. After a handful of condolence letters, Cecil’s collection of correspondence pretty much ends, as if she just didn’t have the heart to save any more letters, or perhaps she received so few after that it didn’t seem worth it. She lived twenty-two more years, however, dying in 1940 at the age of 76.

 

Did you know there was an observatory established by Harvard University in Peru in 1889? This is the Boyden Observatory, where William Henry Pickering discovered Phoebe, a moon of Saturn. Cecil loved getting stories and postcards from Mayme, and later, Lottie, during their travels. Mayme sent this one from Peru in 1917. The postcards are in the collection, along with many family photographs.

 

 

Cecil saved the letters others wrote her, and she saved many beautiful photos of her family, as well as those Lottie sent her from Peru. But there is only one letter handwritten by the collector herself. And it appears to be a draft of a note she was going to send to her daughter to congratulate her on her engagement. “How can I relinquish my claim on you my own darling little girlie?,” she writes, “God bless you both and if your lives are spared, may you both in the years to come be as happy in each other as now.” There isn’t even a photograph of Cecil herself in the collection. Still, the strength and generosity of the woman emerge in the letters written to her and her life was a full one, tragedies and all.

Victor Tyree sent this telegram to Lottie’s brother at his workplace, as he feared that sending it directly to Mama would bring on a heart attack.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can view the finding aid to the Cecilia Parker Woodson Collection here:

http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/woodson.cfm

You can view the finding aid for the papers of William Montavon here:

http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/montavon.cfm

The Archivist’s Nook: A Flapper, a Nurse, and a Nun Apply to Catholic University…

Women blast through the barriers to their admission at Catholic University. No prisoners were taken. Pictured: (L to R) Nursing students Kathleen Bowser and Lois Pecor visiting the Soldier’s Home, 1945-46. Karl M. Schmitt photograph collection. Special thanks to Robert Malesky for identifying the location.

I am not pleading for co-education or the admission of “flappers” into the University, but I am pleading for the cause of the women who mean more for the Church in America in one sense, than all its Hierarchy and all its Priests.

– Archbishop Michael Curley to Peter Guilday, October 10, 1924

Among the most frequently asked questions we receive at the Catholic University Archives are: Who was the first woman to graduate from Catholic University? When did the University first admit female students? Despite the simple questions, the answers are surprisingly complex! Beyond the opposition to coed institutions at the time of the University’s founding, the admission of women was complicated by the variety of degree programs, academic schools, and the status of lay and religious women on the campus.

During the 1895 inauguration of the newly constructed McMahon Hall, Rector John J. Keane stated to those assembled that, “Many women have applied for admission and the University would be glad if it were in her power to grant them the educational advantage which they desire.” Keane went on to state that such a change in the University’s admission policy would necessitate a decision by the Board of Trustees.¹

This issue was seemingly resolved with the founding of Trinity College (1897) and Catholic Sisters College (1911). Both institutions were founded to educate Catholic women, the former being for lay women and the latter for religious sisters. While certain exceptions were granted for some women to enroll as graduate students at the University – although without the full rights of an enrolled student – female students largely took courses at one of the two neighboring colleges. However, with the end of the First World War and passage of women’s suffrage, new opportunities appeared for American women.

New organizations, such as the National Council of Catholic Women, founded educational institutions such as the National Catholic School of Social Service, which became affiliated with Catholic University in 1923. However, despite being affiliated with Catholic University and often being taught by University faculty, none of the female students officially were enrolled or received degrees from the University.  That is until one sister from Minnesota came on the scene.

Sister Hilger with Mapuche women in Chile, ca. 1950s. Traveling the world, Hilger studied childhood experiences across cultures. (Courtesy: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

Wishing to pursue an advanced degree in sociology, Sister Marie Inez Hilger, OSB, was upset to find that major Catholic universities, such as Notre Dame and Catholic University, did not accept female applicants. Explaining her situation to the Bishop Joseph F. Busch of St. Paul, she found a sympathetic ear. Busch expressed concern about the lack of opportunities for religious sisters at Catholic universities and promised to raise the issue at the annual Bishop’s meeting in Washington. Shortly thereafter, a telegram arrived from Busch, informing Hilger that permission had been granted for her to enroll as a full student at Catholic University. Packing up from Minnesota, Hilger arrived on campus on October 1, 1924. Completing her Masters in sociology and social work in 1925, Hilger’s example helped renew the discussion among the Board of Trustees on the topic of female students.

With her admission, the deadlock that had existed since 1895 was broken. The first laywoman to be registered as a full student was Florence McGuire, who began in 1927 and earned a Masters in Greek and Latin. With these two women granted special permission to enroll, a debate developed amongst the University’s leadership. Paralyzed between pro and anti-admission factions, the Board deferred on making a decision and referred the matter to the Rector. In 1928, Rector John H. Ryan granted admission to all religious sisters.² With the stalemate seemingly broken, the Board of Trustees moved quickly to open the University’s graduate programs to all women, lay or religious. However, undergraduate admission was another matter.

In 1932, the School of Nursing began to operate on the campus, presenting a new challenge to the University. Suddenly, a large cohort of lay women required general course work outside the nursing program, necessitating that they be permitted into undergraduate classes. Despite some concern over infringing upon the two nearby colleges, pragmatism won out as sending professional students to other campuses was costly and inefficient.³ Thereafter, women were accepted into a variety of science and humanities courses in the 1930s. While these students were technically enrolled only in professional programs – and not strictly liberal undergraduate degrees – this did not stop female students from becoming engaged in undergraduate life.

(L to R) Kathleen Bowser, Annabelle Melville, Rita Bondi, and Joan Chapman, 1945-46. Melville was a PhD student in history, the other three were nursing students. Karl M. Schmitt photograph collection.

By the end of the 1930s, women would be seen attending and teaching classes in English, drama, anthropology, and even aeronautics. The January 1934 Alumnus even reports that there were already enough female graduates to form the Graduate Alumnae of the Catholic University of America, complete with officer elections and nationwide branches! In the 1940s, female students began to organize their own social clubs on campus, including the Association of Women Students (1943) and the Columbians (1945). Undergraduate actors and actresses graced Fr. Gilbert Hartke’s theatrical stage. By 1950, one of the final barriers to admission came down with the Board of Trustees officially allowing undergraduate women to enroll in bachelor’s degree programs on campus.

As for Sister Hilger? Well, she returned to the University in 1936, earning a doctorate in anthropology in 1939. Soon afterward, she met famed anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who inspired her to continue a lifelong career studying the child life of indigenous people worldwide. After decades of teaching at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota and serving as a Smithsonian research associate, Hilger passed away in 1977.

A small collection detailing the graduate admission and anthropological work of Sister Hilger may be viewed here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/hilger.cfm


¹ The Catholic University Bulletin, Vol. 1 (1895), 540. 
² E. Catherine Dunn and Dorothy A., eds. Mohler. Pioneering Women at The Catholic University of America: Papers Presented at a Centennial Symposium, November 11, 1988 (Hyattsville, MD: International Graphics, 1990), 1-18.
³ Roy Deferrari, Memoirs of The Catholic University of America, 1918-1960  (Boston: The Daughters of St. Paul, 1962), 229-40.